Palestinians flee, wait in tunnel

EREZ CROSSING, Gaza Strip – Trapped by Israeli tanks and Hamas gunmen, hundreds of terrified Palestinians holed up in a stench-filled concrete tunnel at a border crossing Tuesday, desperate to flee the Islamic militants now ruling the Gaza Strip.

Israel took in two people hit by Hamas gunfire, 24 hours after they were wounded in an assault on the tunnel, but officials remained steadfast in rejecting pleas to throw open the border. Three people wounded in the Gaza fighting last week also were allowed into Israel.

Israeli officials permitted a food shipment into Gaza for the first time since Hamas seized control in five days of fighting with the Fatah movement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. That eased concerns about a humanitarian crisis in the impoverished coastal territory.

The crowd at the Erez Crossing included dozens of Fatah fighters, who Israeli officials feared could destabilize the West Bank, which is separated from Gaza by about 30 miles of Israeli territory. Officials said most of those seeking to cross were not in danger.

As the standoff stretched on, the scene inside the 900-foot-long tunnel grew increasingly desperate.

Women, children and young men sat between two high concrete walls forming a corridor about 30 feet across, looking tired and grimy. Suitcases and trash were strewn about. Some people sat on mats, others on bare asphalt, including several men with bloody bandages on their legs.

A breeze barely stirred in the passage, which is lighted on the Israeli side. The tunnel has no toilets, and reeked of urine and sweat.

“It’s disgusting. People are using the walls as toilets. The women are suffering,” said one man, refusing to be identified out of fear for his safety. He said people were on edge and fighting over food.

In one instance, a crowd attacked a food cart, “and only the strong got the food,” the man said. Later, Israel sent in five cartons of food, he said. “There was order because they made everybody sit down,” he said.

The man said some in the tunnel feared Hamas members had infiltrated the crowd to spy on them.

Late Monday, gunmen from a small Hamas-allied group, disguised as civilians, pulled guns and grenades out of their luggage and killed the nephew of a notorious Fatah militia leader who had been slain by a Hamas mob last week, witnesses said. Fifteen people were wounded.

Nearly 24 hours after the attack in the tunnel, Israel allowed in two of the wounded Tuesday, army and medical officials said. Three other Gazans wounded last week also were let in.

An Israeli activist group, Physicians for Human Rights, said Israel’s Supreme Court scheduled a hearing today to hear its petition seeking to force Israeli authorities to offer immediate medical treatment to anyone needing it at Erez.

Witnesses estimated 600 people were huddled in the long concrete passage that leads to the Israeli side of the crossing. About 100 were believed to be fleeing Fatah security men, with the others civilians seeking a better life in the West Bank.

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